T

he first time I attempted to make chicken stock from scratch it tasted like burnt bones.

I was just out of college, still more of an armchair cook than an actual cook, and had but a vague notion of the basic steps. I armed myself with nothing more than a leftover chicken carcass, my roommate's loose-handled pot and the brash assumption that the gods of stockmaking would look favorably upon such an ambitious undertaking.

They did not.

After that, I blithely assured myself that all of the hullabaloo about homemade stock was heavy on the hooey, that perhaps what I was seeking -- a stock that had a pronounced chicken flavor unfettered with herbs, that was consistently rich from one batch to another and that made one feel, well, nourished -- didn't exist.

Certainly, I told myself, canned chicken broth could suffice. But in the back of my mind I still coveted a rich chicken stock in the same manner that some wished for a winning lottery ticket. I knew that almost any recipe for homemade stock would be decent. But I wanted something more.

From that point on, every chicken stock recipe in every cookbook that crossed my path was subject to scrutiny: the ingredients, the technique, the cooking time, anything that might differentiate that recipe from all the rest.

There was Julia Child's sparely worded recipe published in "The Way to Cook," a variant of her original recipe from "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" from 1961. It comprised two paragraphs. In stark contrast was the perfectionist precision of the 1,300-word treatise penned by chef Judith Rodgers of San Francisco's Zuni Cafe the year before last.

The extreme brevity and plainspoken quality of Child's approach would lead one to believe that stockmaking -- and, by extension, cooking -- is instinctive. And to her, perhaps it is. Like most stock recipes, hers is short on words but long on classical French flavor and flair. Two quarts or so raw and/or cooked chicken. Water to cover by an inch. And chopped vegetables if they happened to be on hand.

Rodgers offers a much different approach. Her instructions are unerringly precise but arguably tedious and, at times, dictatorial. Sure, she offers an exact -- if not perfect -- proportion of water to chicken rather than a reckless "enough water to cover." And for that I am evermore grateful. But I don't think going to the trouble of slashing the chicken skin and meat according to her exact specifications actually coaxed any additional flavor from the bird.

Reading between the recipes, I slowly came to trust everyone and no one. In his cookbook "Think Like a Chef," chef and cookbook author Tom Colicchio provided the ingenious idea of boiling the chicken briskly for a few minutes before draining the pot and starting all over again. This tiny investment of time eliminates nearly all the scum, results in a clear, pristine stock and vastly diminishes the tedious task of skimming that would normally require nearly half an hour.

Yet Colicchio dismisses the notion that the carved remains of a roast chicken can play a role in a simple stock. I find the frugal use of a spent carcass not only to be economical but to produce an extremely complex and flavorful stock.

He has his opinion. I have mine.

The more recipes I scavenged, the more I realized the crucial mistake in my thinking: One recipe could never meet all of my demands. Nor, apparently, would it taste just as I wanted. Did I really have to pollute my stock with celery? I hate celery! What if I dropped in a whole clove? Should it be one carrot or two? And wasn't "enough water to cover" sort of a crapshoot? Stock may be highly personal, but intuitive it is not.

After months of weeknights of blearily waiting well past midnight for batches of stock to cool and weekends spent simmering similar but critically different batches side by side, I answered the questions myself. And I learned quite a lot more than what most recipes reveal.

* It's not a bad idea to befriend a butcher if you want the traditional chicken necks and backs for parts.

* If you don't like parsley, don't put it in your stock. Same goes for celery. They contribute bitterness and pungency that detracts from the chicken. On the other hand, whole cloves impart an undercurrent of sweetness that nicely enhances the poultry flavor.

* Stock made from freshly dug organic carrots and onions doesn't taste appreciably different from stock made with limp carrots languishing in the vegetable bin and trimmed onion ends that were destined for the trash.

* Fat adds flavor. You can leave that skin on the chicken and then skim the rendered fat when the stock has cooled.

* Never turn your back on stock during the crucial early moments. Boiling, rather than simmering, stock is an irreversible mistake, resulting in a cloudy appearance and a correspondingly murky flavor.

* Stock is mindful of no one's schedule but its own. Think twice before beginning a batch past 8 p.m.

* The thought of cleanup (the bones and chicken parts, the fat, the grease) inspires more dread than the mess itself merits. (But after flopping raw chicken parts about, I feel like both the kitchen and myself need to be sanitized.)

* It's not a bad idea to keep some chicken parts in the freezer. (I confess that after the hurricane last September, while neighbors were altruistically throwing ad-hoc dinner parties inspired by the contents of their freezer, I made chicken stock by candlelight.)

And I learned one other thing. The outcome is not exactly as resplendent as, say, a chocolate souffle or as spectacular as something like cassoulet. You're left with a layer of fat to skim, a bowl full of gray scum and a vat of pale, clear broth. Understated? Perhaps. Worth the effort? Absolutely.

Chicken stock requires no fancy equipment nor pricey components. But it does rely on decent ingredients, proper proportions and solid techniques.

POT: Use a tall, narrow, metal pot. The limited surface area afforded by a narrow pot prevents excess evaporation of water.

PARTS: Some bones give up far more flavor than others. Traditionally, the more mature the chicken, the more flavorful the stock. Broilers and fryers are young, readily available chickens found in most supermarkets; roasters are slightly older (and hence heavier and pricier); stewing chickens are older still and more difficult to find. (Track down mature hens if you must. But life is short. Use whichever you can find.)

Regardless of age, the more meat on the bones, the more flavorful -- and more nutritious -- the stock.

MORE ON PARTS: The traditional choices among restaurant chefs and penny-pinching home cooks are necks and backs, which contain a fair amount of meat and turn out an entirely respectable stock. Necks and backs are available at many places for less than a buck a pound.

The carcass from a roast or rotisserie bird, with scant amount of meat still attached, results in the most cost-efficient and the most intensely flavored stock. (A 5-pound bird leaves about a 1-pound carcass.)

A whole raw chicken can be poached for a mild stock. To be frugal, you can remove the meat once it is cooked through but before it gives up all of its flavor, after about 45 minutes. Reserve the meat for another use, such as chicken salad or soup, and return the carcass to the pot to simmer for a while longer.

Wings are far less flavorful than any other part. They should be used only to supplement other chicken pieces.

Any chicken parts -- raw or carcasses -- may be frozen as they are acquired for future stockmaking. As for the gizzards, liver, giblets -- the parts that you often find in a plastic package inside a whole bird -- the liver will impart a bitterness to the stock and should be omitted. Use the gizzards and giblets if you wish. Except for the neck, these parts don't add appreciably to flavor in my experience.

WATER: Use cold water. Chicken bones contain several flavor compounds that dissolve readily in warm -- not hot -- water. The gradual warming of cold water allows for maximum extraction of flavor.

If evaporation causes some of the bones to become exposed during simmering, so be it. Don't add additional water unless you first take a sip and decide to dilute the rich -- perhaps too rich -- flavor that's taken all that kitchen time to achieve.

SCUM: The foamy gray scum that surfaces during the first few minutes of simmering contains coagulated protein and blood. Though harmless, it's not exactly appetizing. Place a dump bowl next to the stove and use a skimmer or any flat, wide spoon, to remove the scum.

To dramatically reduce the need to stand by the stove and skim scum for half an hour, I prefer to bring the chicken and enough water to cover to a boil for a few minutes. Drain the chicken, discarding the water and accompanying scum, rinse the chicken and wipe out the pot. Return the chicken to the pot, add the appropriate amount of fresh cold water and proceed with the stock recipe. (Such a short simmer is insufficient to coax any flavor from the meat and bones, so there is no loss of flavor.)

PROPORTIONS: Rather than using "enough water to cover," this recipe relies on a specific proportion of bones to water and an exact amount of salt to ensure that the stock doesn't turn out intensely chicken-y one week and relatively wan and flavorless the next.

OTHER INGREDIENTS: Everyone has a preferred blend of stock ingredients. Black peppercorns. Fresh thyme and parsley. Toasted star anise and cloves. Try whatever intrigues you but start with just a pinch. Then, after the first hour, sip the stock and, if desired, add more flavoring. For a pristine chicken stock with a pronounced but light poultry flavor, use nothing but chicken. For a rich stock with more depth of flavor and even a touch of sweetness, use carrots and onions. And aromatics? There's peppercorns, garlic, fresh herbs, star anise and cloves -- just not all at once, please. For a robust vegetable flavor, start the vegetables and aromatics with the chicken (after you dump that first pot of water and scum down the drain). For a mild vegetable flavor, add the vegetables and aromatics halfway through the cooking process.

Shirley O. Corriher, author of "Cookwise," (Morrow, 1997) explains that dead ripe -- even overripe -- vegetables impart the most flavor to stock, not only because they are sweeter but because they have a soft cell structure that is easily broken down. When the cell walls collapse, explains Corriher, the flavor bursts forth. So toss in that limp carrot languishing in the fridge and those onion ends.

SALT: Though it serves no loftier scientific purpose, a smidgen of salt lends a lot of complexity. But be stingy; even slight evaporation will concentrate the saltiness of a stock seemingly exponentially.

SIMMER DON'T BOIL: Once the chicken and water to cover have been brought to a boil and the scum removed, and the chicken is back in the pot with the fresh batch of water, only the occasional bubble should creep to the surface. The agitation of a rolling boil breaks the components of the scum into tiny parts that are emulsified with the stock, rendering it cloudy and bitter.

TIMING: I find 11/2 to 2 hours to be sufficient, other cooks swear by 3 to 4 hours and a few go as long as 6. Go for as long as you want, but know that a stock can turn bitter after hours of simmering

At some point the liquid reduces to an intensely concentrated stock that becomes gelatinous when refrigerated; the wobbly blob will liquefy when heated. If the flavor is too concentrated, dilute with a slight amount of water.

Rich Chicken Stock

(Makes about 12 cups)

Most approaches to chicken stock play loosely with the proportion of bones to water, pay precious little attention to technique and entirely overwhelm the chicken flavor with other ingredients.

In stark contrast, the following recipe may seem overly precise and entirely too spare. Taste it before you pass judgment. It has a rich, complex flavor that seems entirely incongruent with the relatively short list of ingredients.

Though drawn from many, many sources, the following recipe was largely adapted from Judith Rodgers' "The Zuni Cafe Cookbook" (W.W. Norton, 2002).

5 pounds chicken (whole, bones, parts or any combination)

4 quarts (16 cups) cold water

1 medium yellow onion (12 ounces), coarsely chopped

1 medium carrot (about 4 ounces), peeled and cut into 2-inch chunks

About 1 teaspoon salt

Peppercorns and/or herbs (optional and strongly discouraged the first time)

Rinse the chicken bones or parts under running water. If using whole chicken or chicken parts, remove and discard any excess fat and, if desired, skin.

Place the chicken in a tall, narrow, metal stock pot and add enough cold water to cover by about an inch. Place over high heat and bring to a gentle boil. Boil gently for about 3 minutes. Quite a lot of scum and fat should appear on the surface. Gently stir the chicken just once to allow any trapped scum to rise to the surface.

Place a colander in the sink. Dump the contents of the pot into the colander and allow the water and scum to go down the drain. This removes the protein and blood that form the scum and foam (but not the chicken flavor). Rinse the chicken and wipe the pot clean.

Return the chicken to the pot, add 16 cups cold water and the onion, carrot and salt. If adding peppercorns and/or herbs, you may add them now for a strong flavor. The chicken should be submerged. If it is not, try to rearrange the chicken before adding additional water. If absolutely necessary, add a little extra water. Place over medium-high heat and bring to a simmer. Do not boil. Reduce the heat to medium or medium-low and simmer gently. A stray bubble, not a steady stream of bubbles, should occasionally appear on the surface. You will need to adjust the heat a few times to attain the optimal simmer.

Use a spoon to skim any additional scum that appears on the surface. After a while, rendered fat will form a sort of layer on top of the stock. If desired, you may spoon off any fat as it accumulates on the surface, although I wouldn't advise it. (It imparts flavor to the stock and will eventually be skimmed from the resulting stock anyway.)

Simmer the stock, without stirring, for 11/2 to 2 hours. (If using a whole chicken, you may wish to remove the chicken after it is cooked through, about 45 minutes. Set aside to cool slightly. Remove the skin and most of the meat; return the bones to the stock and continue to simmer. Reserve the chicken for another use.) For a mild flavor, wait to add the peppercorns and/or herbs at this time.

The level will drop slightly as the water evaporates. Do not add more water without first tasting a sip and deciding whether the stock is too concentrated.

Once you are satisfied with the flavor, remove the pot from the heat.

Place a fine strainer or a strainer lined with cheesecloth over a large shallow bowl or roasting pan. Using tongs, transfer the chicken parts to a plate and reserve to shred the meat for another use or discard. If the pot is quite full, you may choose to ladle some of the stock into the strainer before attempting to pour from a heavy pot full of hot, sloshing liquid. Carefully strain the stock. Discard the solids.

If using the stock immediately, use a spoon or paper towels to skim the fat from the surface of the stock or transfer the stock to a fat separator in batches.

If using the stock later, immediately fill the kitchen sink with ice water and place the bowl or pan of stock in the ice water. In a perfect world, the stock should be no more than 3 inches deep to promote quick cooling. Replenish the ice until the stock reaches room temperature, about 10 minutes. Refrigerate, uncovered, until chilled through. Using a spoon, remove and discard the layer of fat from the surface. (The refrigerated stock may become gelatinous; don't worry, it will liquefy when heated.) Then cover and refrigerate for no more than 3 days.

To freeze, transfer to individual plastic bags or ice cube trays and freeze for up to 3 months. (To thaw frozen stock, place in the refrigerator overnight or dump the stock from the storage container into a pot over low heat. If it tastes too chicken-y, simply add water, a little at a time, when reheating.

Ingredients are too variable for meaningful analysis.

VARIATIONS:

Plain Chicken Stock: A rather light but crystal-clear stock that works best as a base for delicate broths and soups. Omit the carrot and onion in the preceding recipe; use only chicken and salt.

Vietnamese Chicken Stock: An intensely flavorful stock that is the basis for a pho or any Asian-style soup.

Char a 4-inch piece fresh ginger, halved lengthwise and smashed; char 2 large peeled yellow onions. (To char the ingredients, carefully broil or hold them over a gas flame until browned in spots.)

In a dry skillet over medium heat, lightly toast 6 whole star anise and 6 whole cloves, shaking the skillet occasionally, for 2 minutes.

In the preceding recipe, to the chicken and water add the ginger, onions, 1 to 2 tablespoons fish sauce, 1 to 2 tablespoons sugar and about 1 tablespoon coarse salt, bring to a simmer and cook for 30 minutes. Add the star anise, cloves and 1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns and continue to simmer gently for 1 hour. Strain and cool as directed. Taste and adjust the fish sauce, sugar and salt accordingly. Adapted from "Pleasures of the Vietnamese Table" by Mai Pham (Harper Collins, 2001).

Traditional Chicken Stock: A mildly herbaceous chicken stock. In the preceding recipe, bring only the chicken, water and salt to a simmer. After 1 hour, add the onion, carrot and 2 leeks (white parts only, trimmed and chopped) and simmer for 15 minutes. Then add 3 to 4 sprigs fresh parsley and 3 to 4 sprigs fresh thyme and simmer for 5 minutes. Remove from the heat. Adapted from "Think Like a Chef" by Tom Colicchio (Clarkson Potter, 2000).

Asparagus, Pancetta

and Rice Soup

(Makes about 4 cups)

Even when a soup is crowded with ingredients, a decent stock makes all of the difference. Here, onions impart sweetness and pepper provides heat. A stock with a hearty chicken flavor is required as a unifying force. Adapted from Judith Rodgers' "The Zuni Cafe Cookbook" (W.W. Norton, 2002).

6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 cups diced yellow onions (8 ounces)

Salt to taste

1/4 cup long-grain white rice

About 31/2 cups Rich Chicken Stock (see preceding recipe beginning on Page F4)

1/2 cup water

About 8 ounces asparagus, ends trimmed

3 to 4 ounces pancetta or bacon, finely minced (1/2 to 2/3 cup)

Freshly cracked black pepper to taste

In a large pot over medium-low heat, warm about 4 tablespoons of the oil. Add the onions and a pinch of salt and cook slowly, stirring regularly, until the onions "sweat" their moisture and become tender and translucent, about 10 minutes. Do not let the onions color.

Add the rice, stock and water and bring to a simmer. Cover tightly and cook until the rice is nutty-tender, about 15 to 20 minutes, depending on the rice you choose. The broth will be cloudy and should taste sweet from the onions. Turn off the heat.

While the rice is cooking, cut the asparagus in half crosswise, then sliver the halves, slicing them on an angle, about 1/8 inch thick. Don't worry if the slivers vary a little in thickness; the irregularity will guarantee uneven cooking and a varied texture. You should get about 2 cups.

In a large skillet over medium heat, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons oil. Add the pancetta and asparagus and stir once to coat, then spread them out and sizzle until the asparagus begins to turn golden brown. Toss or stir once, then allow to turn golden brown again. Repeat a few times until the mass has softened and shrunk somewhat.

Scrape the mixture into the soup and return to a simmer. Add lots of pepper and simmer for about 1 minute. Serve immediately.

Per serving: 459 calories, 15 gm protein, 19 gm carbohydrates, 36 gm fat, 28 mg cholesterol, 9 gm saturated fat, 649 mg sodium, 3 gm dietary fiber

Pho Ga

(Vietnamese Rice Noodle Soup With Chicken)

(Makes about 4 cups)

Starting with a stock that is already infused with warming spices eliminates the need for slowly simmering this soup. Only assembly is required. Adapted from "Pleasures of the Vietnamese Table" by Mai Pham (HarperCollins, 2001).

1/2 pound dried rice noodles, cooked and drained

Shredded chicken from chicken stock

1/4 medium yellow onion, thinly sliced

About 6 cups Vietnamese Chicken Stock variation on Rich Chicken Stock (see first recipe, beginning on Page F4)

3 scallions, thinly sliced

Finely chopped fresh cilantro leaves

About 1/2 pound bean sprouts

Sprigs basil, preferably Thai basil (optional)

Thai bird chili peppers (may substitute serrano or jalapeno)

1 lime, cut into 6 wedges

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

Divide the noodles evenly among individual bowls and scatter the shredded chicken and onion over the top. Ladle about 11/2 cups hot broth into each bowl. Top with scallions and cilantro. Pass the bean sprouts, basil, chili peppers, lime and pepper on the side.

Per serving (based on 4): 250 calories, 24 gm protein, 16 gm carbohydrates, 5 gm fat, 76 mg cholesterol, 2 gm saturated fat, 300 mg sodium, 1 gm dietary fiber